Blog: 2014

Monday, June 30

He is one of 40 interns who went through orientation in preparation for the Monday start of a seven-week camp for 500 kids. The interns come from the U.S., Canada and England.

"Ernesto wants to work with children, to make an impact wherever he is, so he came to UrbanPromise. I'm excited for the kids to get to know him," said Jodina Hicks, executive director of the organization founded in 1988.

Shakazulu's story is the stuff of movies and books. In fact, he began writing his memoir two months ago.

His mother died when he was 3, and a succession of caregivers passed away. His 9-year-old sister — one of seven siblings — took care of him until she got married.

At 11, Shakazulu landed a job taking care of a yard in Lilongwe. He took what little money he earned from landscaping and bought five doughnuts at a bakery. He resold the doughnuts, and put the money back into the business, adding more doughnuts to his inventory each day. He reached 65 doughnuts when someone stole his stash and put him out of business.

In the meantime, he slept in places such as a cardboard box under a disabled bus. "He scoured reeking trash heaps for discarded scraps. He was an orphan with no future other than prison or an early grave," wrote UrbanPromise President Bruce Main, one of Shakazulu's early supporters.

An UrbanPromise worker found Shakazulu and introduced him to an after-school program and offered him a place to stay in one of their orphanages, the SafeHaven Home for Boys on the outskirts of Lilongwe. SafeHaven enrolled Shakazulu in school and nourished him with three meals a day. He flourished.

"I no longer lived on the streets. I was one of seven kids in SafeHaven," said Shakazulu, who is visiting Camden for the first time.

He got tossed out of school for drinking beer. "It was not acceptable to do that," he said of the infraction.

Upset with himself, Shakazulu pecked out an email to an American family he knew living in the area, begging for help. He promised not to repeat the habit if they would send him back to school. They did, and he passed the high school exam.

"Main told me to apply to Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, his alma mater. He said, 'You won't regret it,' " Shakazulu said.

A few miracles, some scholarships and a couple of generous benefactors later, Shakazulu enrolled as a freshman in 2013, with a major in economics. Now a junior, the 24-year-old plans to graduate in December 2015.

"I want to go home when I graduate and invest in a business to help raise money to build a school and hospital for my village, Mtengowagwa," he said. "I will create employment."

He also hopes to make a difference as a political leader in the small African country. "I want to be the Malawi president one day."

Hicks calls Shakazulu a miracle.

"I cannot believe his life story," she said. "He is grateful to look at life through the lens of gratitude. He is a boost for young people to whom just eating a meal is a luxury. We hope for many more Ernestos in the future."

In addition to Malawi and Camden, UrbanPromise serves children in Wilmington, Del.; Trenton; Miami; Vancouver, British Columbia; Toronto; Honduras; and Uganda. Young college grads run the various agencies under the UrbanPromise umbrella.

"We have six organizations in Malawi and one in Uganda and they are all thriving," Creative Director Shannon Oberg said.

Replied Hicks, "Our motto is, 'Give them the tools and start-up funds to save the country.' "

Like Shakazulu, intern Ciaran Grant, wants to help out his hometown of New Castle, England. "A lot of good will come out of this experience. I don't know what I want to do, but I want to give my life to New Castle," said the 18-year-old who just graduated high school.

Though only here a few days, Grant called the orientation this week "absolutely incredible."

He will help kids with basketball, take them fishing on the Delaware and pursue other recreational activities.

"It's a big adjustment being here; there's lots of poverty," said Grant, who comes from a gritty place in Northern England where so many end up in jail or into drugs.

"I'm a little nervous, but more excited. I don't want the seven weeks to go fast."

Reach William Sokolic at (856) 486-2437 or or on Twitter @WilliamSokolic

Thursday, June 19

Employ a teen
When Bruce gave me the chance to design our high school ministry in 1994, I knew employment had to be at the center of what we would do.

UrbanPromise’s Senior Club was very popular back then, with over 120 teens coming weekly and sometimes daily to youth group and service projects. But most of the teens had dropped out of school, and many were selling drugs. These kids, with so much stacked against them, are forever imprinted in my heart and memory. They were thrust into adult roles and responsibilities, with little resources or help. Most of them did not have hope for a future different from what they saw around them, most did not believe they could get a job, and college was not in what they perceived as the realm of possibilities. 

And yet, they had so much potential! Out of their realities and needs, the StreetLeader program was born.

Twenty years later, the same conditions exist. Annie, a senior in high school, works as a StreetLeader to pay her family’s utility bills. Recently, I overheard her telling a friend “It’s not that hard; all you need is a flashlight, bottled water, and a few blankets.” She was not talking about camping; she was talking about surviving without water, heat, and lights. She hadn’t been able to keep up with the bills. Dwayne, a junior in high school, is another  motivated StreetLeader. He is charming, talented, kind, and an excellent student at Creative Arts High School. At 16 years old, Dwayne was emancipated after his mother and grandmother died. He is raising himself.

Some things haven’t changed much in 20 years. 

But there is a crucial difference. Our young people have hope, and with hope come dreams and goals. Annie has known she will go to college since her sophomore year in high school. The question hasn’t been “if,” but “where.” She knows  her  life will  be  different,  and she  will not have the hardships that her parents have. She has tangible choices.

Dwayne is focused on becoming a professional dancer after he finishes college. He makes smart choices and chooses great friends, surrounding himself with people who help him through this time in his life.

These StreetLeaders know they can succeed because they have seen others do it.

The policewoman that covers the UrbanPromise area is a StreetLeader graduate, as is an East Camden fireman and Madelyn Caba, the manager of Staples. Arlene Wube, a Howard University alumna, business owner, and UrbanPromise board member, returns to meet our teens. Albert and Tony Vega, Mark Goode, Jacob Rodriguez, and Tyshema Lane are all StreetLeader alumni who work at UrbanPromise. These people have attended universities all over the country, and they’re investing in the lives of young people.

Providing meaningful alternatives to poverty and crime requires a significant financial investment. It costs $2,000/summer to employ a teen; $4,500 for the entire year. Since 1994, donors have invested in hiring 1,600 teens from Camden into the StreetLeader program. The program results are consistently high, with 100% of our StreetLeaders graduating from high school year after year, and over 90% going on to college. From the bottom of my heart, I thank these donors for the difference they have made in the lives of our young people.

Donate Now

This summer, our goal is to hire 90 teens! I hope you will help us. When you support a StreetLeader, you provide much more than a job. You make hope real, dreams possible, and a productive future attainable.

Thank you in advance for your generosity!

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

PS.  I’d love for you to join me and a couple of our StreetLeaders. On July 1st and 2nd, we will be PADDLING for PROMISE, canoeing 50 miles down the Delaware River from Trenton to Wilmington to raise the funds to hire StreetLeaders this summer. To see how you can get involved, please visit

Monday, June 9

UrbanPromise's BoatWorks program was the starting point for Camden teen Siani Burgess' love for rowing.

Siani Burgess didn't know picking up a canoe paddle would change the course of her young life.

She smiles and shakes her head when asked about a photograph of her on the water for the first time last year. In the picture, Siani looks a bit shy, even timid.

She sits awkwardly in a wooden canoe, but she smiles. She incongruously holds a powder blue umbrella — and a paddle.

A girl who grew up surrounded by the waterways that define Camden, Siani had not only never been on water, she didn't much like to swim, either.

Despite her height, basketball was a non-starter. A bit girly, she hates getting dirty and likes her hair and clothes just so. Tried soccer and karate — quit both after just a few weeks.

Siani had the umbrella with her on a trip with Urban BoatWorks —an experiential program that exposes city kids to the outdoors —because there was a drizzle that day on the Rancocas Creek — and "I have African-American hair!"

But the umbrella made going fast impossible.

"I was like that," she explains, emphasizing the past tense.

Something clicked that day, though. Siani put down the umbrella, grabbed the paddle with two hands, and put her arms, back and heart into making the canoe go.

She's been going since. These days, she rows as fast as possible on the water.

Something clicked.

Siani was still reticent a few months later when she went to BoatWorks' hands-on, boatbuilding program.

The workshop teaches kids how to build boats from wood.

"I stand off," Siani says of how she reservedly approaches most new experiences.

But over time, something clicked again. The girl who'd never in her life picked up a hammer or a screwdriver was soon using power tools.

"I liked it," recalls Siani, flashing the radiant smile that comes to her when she considers things she's discovered about herself.


It's like a moment you have. It helps you understand," she says of feeling the click slip into place.

Next in her progression came signing up for crew with the South Jersey Rowing Club on Pennsauken's nearby Cooper River.

By then, Siani knew some new things about herself: "I loved boats. I knew I loved water. I wanted to be in the water. Mom bought me a pair of sweatpants and signed me up."

First, though, there was the matter of the $1,500 cost, a stretch for a single mom on a nurse's salary, like LaPree Burgess.

"I've got to invest in my daughter," insists the 35-year-old ICU nurse at Cooper University Hospital on funding a season of crew.

"I've got to give her a shot."

Fact is, LaPree has invested her life in Siani since the girl was just 6 months old. That's when LaPree — just 21 at the time — put aside her ambition to become a doctor and took in Siani, a cousin who came to her in a court-ordered placement.

LaPree knew then with her schedule and finishing college nursing classes she could serve as a lifeline only for Siani and not her siblings.

It was the spring semester of her first year at nursing school. Some days, Siani got dropped at day care as early as 5:45 a.m. and picked up as late as 7:30 p.m., allowing LaPree to get some studying done before taking her baby home. LaPree's mother was nearby to lend a helping hand.

LaPree's adoption of Siani became official in 2009.

Maybe LaPree's long-term investment in Siani is why her the latter stuck with rowing despite initial unease.

"When I first started, everyone was looking at me. It was like they were saying: 'Who is she? She's in the wrong place.' '' the teen recalled.

"I was the only African American. The only black person. I felt intimidated. But I had it in my mind I was going to stick.

"I told myself I'm gonna get in the boat and do it."

Do it she has.

"I'm walking on faith," notes LaPree. "Siani, she's walking on water."

Promise of help

There's a full-circle aspect to Siani's involvement in BoatWorks, sponsored by UrbanPromise.

Back when LaPree was also 14, she went to work at a summer camp sponsored by UrbanPromise. Her counselor was Jeff VanderKuip, a carpenter.

Today, he volunteers as overseer of BoatWorks, showing Siani how to make boats.

Ever protective, LaPree had sent Siani to UrbanPromise Academy, a private Christian school, rather than the Camden public schools. Next year, she moves to The King's Christian School in Cherry Hill.

And while LaPree had previously gone through the UrbanPromise summer program, it was Siani who suggested going on the canoe trip and trying boat building.

The building program began in the summer of 2009, according to founder Jim Cummings, a Pitman resident who sold his business and devotes his life to helping UrbanPromise youth.

That first year, they built five rowboats, including three named Promise, Faith and Grace.

By Kevin Shelly, Courier-Post

Thursday, May 15

Support a summer intern
 If you bumped into Ernesto Shakazulu 7 years ago, he might have tried to pick your pocket or hustle a dollar or two from you.

Back then, you would have found 13-year-old Ernesto sleeping in a cardboard box under a disabled bus in Lilongwe in Malawi, a small sub-Saharan country of 14 million people. He would have bathed in a sewage deposit and scoured the reeking trash heaps for discarded scraps. He was an orphan with no future other than prison or an early grave.

And then an UrbanPromise worker found Ernesto and offered him a place to stay in one of our clean and healthy orphanages, The SafeHaven Home for Boys, located on the outskirts of Lilongwe. (Yes, UrbanPromise has programs all over the world!) SafeHaven enrolled Ernesto in school and nourished him with three healthy meals a day. Ernesto flourished.

“I would have died in the streets,” he recently told me, “but the SafeHaven Home saved me.” Over the next 4 years, Ernesto became an excellent student and, by his senior year in high school, his grades suggested that he would be able to attend college.

“There were a few books donated to the orphanage,” he recalled not long ago, “I stumbled on one called Gift Hands. It was a book about a kid who grew up in the inner city of Baltimore and became the first African-American neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. That story inspired me. So I decided I wanted to become a doctor.”

I encouraged Ernesto to apply to my alma mater, which is located in southern California. I still had a few contacts on campus and believed it would be a great place for him to study. A few miracles, some scholarships from the University, and a couple of generous benefactors later, Ernesto enrolled as a freshman in 2013. He now studies Economics, hoping to return to his country and make a difference as a political leader. “I want to return to Malawi,” he confides. “I want to help my people.”

A world of difference in 7 years. And now Ernesto wants to give the 7 weeks of his summer break to make a difference in Camden, NJ.

This June, Ernesto will arrive at UrbanPromise in Camden, NJ, to serve as a summer intern for 7 weeks. “I need to give back to the place that was responsible for changing my life,” he said. 

He will not be alone in his mission. Ernesto will be joined by 40 other college students from across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. These college “missionaries” will volunteer in UrbanPromise’s day camps, reaching over 500 children by building relationships with local teens, living in our Camden neighborhoods, and learning about urban youth ministry. You can be assured they will make a real difference!

However, Ernesto and his friends need your help. In exchange for their service, I have promised  to house and feed those eager and energetic young adults for the summer. It will cost UrbanPromise approximately $100/week for each missionary, $700 for an entire summer.

My hope is that you will help by underwriting housing and food for one of our volunteer missionaries for a week ($100), a month ($400), or a whole summer ($700).

Donate now 

I look forward to your reply and to sharing with you the transforming stories of what Ernesto, the other interns, and you will accomplish in Camden this summer.


Dr. Bruce Main

P.S. If you want to learn more about what UrbanPromise is doing internationally, please visit our website at

Sunday, April 20

If you spend time at UrbanPromise Academy it is not long before you hear someone point the school motto, “engaging knowledge, transforming lives.” It addresses this idea that when people know about a problem – when they are educated – they are motivated to advocate for change.

Students in Action (SIA) is a student group at the Academy that has set out to educate our community about the social and environmental problems faced and the ways they can help. As one student wrote, “Camden is known for drugs, homelessness, gun-violence and hatred. These stereotypes can be obstacles in the path to success, but students at UPA want to transform this perception of Camden.” So, SIA began this year asking the question “What would happen if everyone cared?” Soon, this small group of students had the whole school bringing in backpacks full of canned goods and baby pajamas and students signing up for service projects. They joined with two other high schools to develop community service projects and for the purpose of community organizing. And when students at one of these schools heard about how the junior class was sponsoring a Malawian student’s, Orrisen, education, they wanted to know about other ways they could help him and his community. They collected over 100 pairs of jeans which in June we will sent to Malawi, where Orrisen lives.

This was the beginning of a culture-change at the Academy. More grass-roots projects took root. One of the students in the sophomore class, named Julio, took it upon himself to initiate a fundraising project. Another sophomore, Jenniffer, attended a leadership conference with the SIA team and learned about the prevalence of human trafficking in New Jersey today. She then posed the question, “Just imagine that you have to live your life with no free-will, where all you can do is work for money that does not benefit you, and live with people that are willing to kill you if you make the smallest mistake. Imagine not being able to see or talk to your family ever again. Imagine the most inhuman thing that could ever happen to anyone…”  – What would happen if everyone cared? Jenniffer has begun to speak about human trafficking publically around South Jersey, educating others and advancing change.

On Friday, SIA traveled to Rowan University to present their projects in front of a panel from the Jefferson Award for Public Service. This award was founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft, Jr. and Sam Beard in 1972 to “build a culture of service.” SIA was named and awarded a Gold Banner Service Leadership School and were ranked in the top three schools in the state for community service.

98% of the Academy students have engaged in community service this year. This does not simply represent a number, but is shows a change in the culture at the Academy. The work ethic and compassion SIA has developed is remarkable. SIA’s enthusiasm, passion, and even grit impact those around her. There is no doubt that SIA is engaging knowledge and transforming lives – their own and others’ too.


Friday, March 21

Two weeks ago, 9-year-old Arie Burton placed second in the UrbanPromise Poetry Contest (see poem below). Arie sparkled like a diamond. Winning a $10 gift card for her effort etched an indelible smile on her face. 

By Sunday afternoon, little Arie was on life support at Cooper Hospital—brain dead from a tragic car accident involving her family. In the midst of their grief, her family made an incredible decision: to honor Arie's sweet and giving personality, they donated her organs to others in need. Her heart was given to a child in desperate need of a transplant.

The heart-wrenching loss left her family and our community stunned and confused.

“Her poem was brilliant,” reminisced a tearful Tony Vega, Arie’s Camp Director. “Her words so insightful…beyond her years. She was so happy and proud of her accomplishment. I can’t believe she’s gone.” 

It’s been a difficult few weeks.

Like many weeks at UrbanPromise, there is a mixture of joy and pain.  Working in a community like Camden, we experience inordinate amounts of tragedy and loss. No matter how it arrives, it’s never easy. 

And yet our team somehow chooses to move forward in love and hope—even at the risk of pain and loss.  Maybe it’s because God shows up in other ways.

Seeing 60 spring break-celebrating college students choose Camden over Cancun encouraged our hearts, reminding us that there are young adults in the world who still want to follow Jesus by serving others.

Watching Jodina Hicks, our gifted and talented Executive Director, be recognized as a “New Jersey Hero” last Wednesday by our state’s first lady, Mary Pat Christie, bolstered our spirits. After serving families and youth in Camden for so many years, it was nice to see Jodina recognized for her many contributions.

Listening to 150 junior high kids laugh and scream at the annual UrbanPromise Olympics, full of mucky games and wacky skits, affirmed our mission to provide fun, safe, beautiful alternatives to the dangers of the streets.

And this past Friday witnessing 250 donors attend our Taste of Promise, cheering our kids on and donating nearly $70,000 was a needed boost of encouragement. They reminded our team that there are many humble and generous people in the world.

Yes–it’s been a difficult, unforgettable few weeks.  In the midst of it all, I’m grateful for your prayers, friendship, and belief that we can be a presence for God’s love, compassion, and justice.

Bruce Main


P.S. If you are interested in making a donation to Arie's family to help with expenses during this heartbreaking time we have set up a fund and 100% of the money will go to the family. Click here to make a donation. Thank you for your help!

A poem by Arie

Below is a poem that Arie wrote on 3/14/14 just days before the accident that took her life. Arie placed second at the poetry contest that night. 

Kids are crying
People are dying

See the world that I’m living in?

People are talking ghetto in the streets and kids repeat

Do you see the world I live in?

Don't ever be a bystander cause kids would think that’s cool

If your getting bullied don’t let him grind you in the dirt

Because he's just a jerk

He tries to hurt you because he's hurt

But deep inside he's not a jerk

He thinks that’s how things work

Do you know who he Is?

He is Camden
Camden wasn’t a bully at first

Until we started treating him like dirt

That’s why he's a bully

But deep inside he's not a bully

Do u see the world I’m living in?


Friday, March 14

New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie on Wednesday honored Jodina Hicks, executive director of UrbanPromise in Camden, as her second “New Jersey ­Hero” of 2014.

Through a series of programs and initiatives, Hicks works to provide at-risk children and young adults in the city with the tools necessary to succeed in life — from academic achievement and life management to spiritual growth and leadership skills. She is the 26th individual to be named a New Jersey Hero.

“I admire Jodina’s commitment in helping our youth realize their true life potential,” Christie said. “From her early contributions in getting the UrbanPromise organization off the ground to her return as the agency’s executive director, Jodina is shaping the next generation of young leaders who will ultimately represent change and pride in their community.”

Founded by Bruce Main in 1988, UrbanPromise has a 25 year history in Camden. The agency provides an array of programs that challenge youth to develop the skills they need to succeed in life through after-school and summer camps, two schools, job training, experiential learning, and a host of other initiatives. UrbanPromise serves approximately 640 children and teens from the Camden community each year.

“It's humbling and an honor for First Lady Mary Pat Christie to recognize UrbanPromise and me as a hero,” said Jodina Hicks. “The definition of a hero, someone who displays courage and self sacrifice in the face of adversity, is very fitting for the staff of UrbanPromise, the families of Camden, and most of all the youth of our city, who, despite tremendous obstacles and traumatic conditions are living their lives with courage and are transforming our community.”

During a twelve year span, Ms. Hicks helped to begin the organization’s adolescent programs, including the Street Leader Program, Urban Promise Academy, and numerous college preparation and performingarts activities. From 2000-2010, she developed youth development programs, faith-based initiatives, and corrections reform with Public/Private Ventures and the Safer Foundation. She returned to Camden in 2010 to serve as the agency’s executive director.

At UrbanPromise, nearly 100% of participating high school students graduate, with approximately 93% moving on to college. Nearly 85% of UrbanPromise alumni have graduated from an institution of higher educationtobecome doctors, teachers, social workers, child care workers and business owners. In addition, it is not unusual to have former UrbanPromise participants return to the organization as employees or volunteers, or to enroll their children in Urban Promise activities.

Written by Courier-Post

Friday, March 14

After Mary Pat Christie presented the award, once cameras stopped flashing and the crowd dispersed, Jodina Hicks - the latest "New JerseyHero" - finally got to see the person who she says saved her life.

Carter, age 4, ran up to his mother with flowers and a wide smile.

"He was a big part of giving me something to really get up for," Hicks said Wednesday. My job "absolutely was, too, but on a very personal level, he was really what I needed, and me for him, too."

Hicks, executive director of Urban Promise, an award-winning youth services powerhouse in Camden with two private schools, after-school programs, and leadership, job-training, scholarship, and mentoring initiatives, became the 26th recipient of the New Jersey Heroes award and the first from Camden County.

"It's exponential, the people that you're helping here," Christie said on a tour of the facility Wednesday. New Jersey Heroes is an initiative the governor's wife started that showcases positive ways people and organizations affect their communities.

At 43, Hicks has spent more than half of her life trying to make things better for the underdog - from Camden's youth to the formerly incarcerated. In the last four years, she's done it while quietly rebuilding her own life following a personal tragedy.

Hicks, born in Pittsburgh, attended Eastern College in St. Davids and then spent 12 years working at Urban Promise while earning her law degree from Rutgers-Camden.

She left Urban Promise in 2000 to work in prisoner reentry programs. There she met her "best friend and love," David Lewis, a longtime advocate for former inmates and the founder of "Free at Last," a national reentry program.

But in her 10 years away from Camden, Hicks said, she never encountered the familial community or dedication to a mission she'd had at Urban Promise.

So Hicks reached out to Urban Promise founder Bruce Main, who invited her back - this time as executive director. Lewis, 54, started filling out retirement papers, and the engaged couple made plans to move to the city in June 2010, following years of dating long distance - she in Chicago and he in California.

A week before the move, Lewis was fatally shot outside a mall in Palo Alto by a paranoid schizophrenic, a client he had helped get clean nearly a decade before, Hicks said.

Lewis left behind three children, three grandchildren, and Hicks.

"It was a huge loss. He really was a wonderful man and my best friend. My coming back here was a dream come true, and he was totally supportive of it," she said.

So Hicks returned to Camden alone. She threw herself into work at the organization, which serves about 640 children daily, most from Camden and Pennsauken.

Urban Promise is the leading employer of teens in the city, with a cadre of street leaders who mentor younger children and also take advantage of Urban Promise tutoring programs themselves.

"You can't really start with people already set in their ways, but starting with kids, that's how you get to see change," said Ashley Gascot, 16, a junior at Urban Promise Academy and a street team leader.

A year and a half after Lewis' death, Hicks met Carter through her organization. Then 2, Carter was living temporarily with his great-grandmother after being removed from his parents' home due to neglect. Hicks was his foster parent for a year and then adopted him.

"The amazing story line in my life is losing David and then having this amazing son," she said. "My hopes for a family were over, and here comes this little boy, and I fell in love with him."

Hicks had raised a 12-year-old girl when she was in her 20s during her first stint at Urban Promise. That young woman is now vice principal of the nonprofit.

One of the things Hicks likes most about the organization is its direct approach to the city's challenges.

"I got pulled into this amazing vision, which is that we are the plan. There's no state nor federal nor other plan waiting to make conditions for children in Camden better," Hicks said. "It's our lives and our calling to do that."

As a New Jersey hero, Hicks received $7,500 to go toward the organization. She can apply for additional grants, along with the 25 other recipients since 2009.

Urban Promise receives about $3 million in grants and contributions each year toward its numerous programs.

The program, founded in Camden in 1988, has expanded, with locations in Wilmington, Trenton, and Miami, as well as Canada, Honduras, and Malawi.

Hundreds of volunteers come in each year.

On Wednesday groups, from Canada and Tennessee helped facilitate a junior Olympics for after-school students.

As Hicks accepted her award in the school's chapel, she thanked the smiling young faces seated before her and the many teachers, administrators, and volunteers.

"There's an African saying, 'I am because we are,' " she said. "Truly, looking out at the audience, thank you. Were it not for you, I wouldn't have had the courage to keep going."

Written by Julia Terruso

Wednesday, March 12

First Lady Mary Pat Christie traveled to the Camden area Wednesday to award the head of a faith-based community center and school with the New Jersey Hero prize.

Christie, who has honored 25 other “New Jersey Heroes” within the past five years of the program, also presented Urban Promise Executive Director Jodina Hicks with a $7,500 check, which she said will be used to benefit the organization.

“You guys are doing some truly amazing things here at Urban Promise,” the first lady said, addressing the counselors and children assembled at the community center. “I am humbled when I see these programs in our state, and I like getting the chance to spotlight them for more people to see across the state.”

Founded in 1988, Urban Promise offers free after-school programs, summer camps, job training and other services to children and teenagers, the majority of whom hail from Camden. The non-denominational Christian organization also maintains a middle school and high school, which charges a $2,500 per year tuition.

It is the largest employer of teenagers in Camden, according to Hicks, paying minimum wage, and sometimes more, to “street leaders” who help students with homework and otherwise act as mentors in the summer camp and after-school programs. This summer, the organization plans to hire 80 to 90 more teens.

While it’s mailing address is in Pennsauken, Urban Promise practically straddles the township’s border with Camden, and is located just blocks away from the city’s Woodrow Wilson High School.

“Looking up the definition of hero before, I thought that it fits perfectly with Camden, and for Urban Promise,” said Hicks, accepting the New Jersey Hero award and $7,500 check from Christie. “It means to show courage in the face of adversity, and I think that’s exactly what people here are doing.”

Later, Hicks said she could think of two Urban Promise programs that could benefit from the extra influx of money.

“We have an emergency family fund — a pool of money that goes to help families with 


New Jersey's first lady chats with New Jersey Hero

First Lady Mary Pat Christie left, speaks with Jodina Hicks, right, executive director of Urban Promise in Camden, as her 2nd New Jersey Hero of 2014 and her 26th Hero overall.


Christie’s New Jersey Heroes program, first initiated by Gov. Chris Christie five years ago, is designed to highlight “positive and unique ways people and organizations are impacting” others throughout the state, according to representatives for the first lady.

Applications for prospective “heroes” are collected and reviewed by a committee, Christie said. She does not choose the eventually winners, but instead presents the awards across the state.

Urban Promise and Hicks are the first recipients of the award in Camden County.

“This allows me to highlight programs that benefit our youth, which is something we should be celebrating,” said Christie. “It also creates a network of heroes, and they can connect with each other to discuss best practices, and it allows them to apply for additional state grants. So, there is a real benefit to being named a hero.”

Before presenting the award to Hicks, Christie toured Urban Promise's two centers on Rudderow Street, and met with students, faculty and street leaders.

Brent Lebman, the child ministries director for the after-school program, was among those in the raucous common room — filled with children and teens loudly chatting and playing — when the first lady entered.

“Jodina getting this award is only fitting — she’s a hard worker and is very dedicated,” he said.

Asked what he hoped Christie would take away from the visit, Lebman said he wants more people to have a better understanding of the people of Camden.

“I think Camden gets such a negative reputation, that people miss that kids are kids, and these are great kids,” said Brent, himself a Camden resident. “I hope she sees human beings here, and that there’s a lot of love here.

“Rather than a wasteland, I hope people see diamonds in the rough, and not give up on us.”


By Jason Laday/South Jersey Times 

Friday, February 28

On a forlorn, potholed stretch of Broadway in the nation's most dangerous city, middle and high school kids are happily making canoes and kayaks out of peanut butter.

"We made the measurements on the boat, we put the nails in, we put in the peanut butter,'' says Angelika Rivera, sweeping back her long hair so it doesn't get in the way of sanding duties.

It's not real peanut butter, but a peanut butter-like epoxy that acts as a glue and filler on the wooden boats.

"Everything I do starts with epoxy,'' says Jeff VanderKuip, the volunteer in charge of the boat building program. "'That boat,'' he adds, pointing to the canoe, "is full of peanut butter.''

Rivera's classmates stand around a 16-foot Merrimac canoe they are building in an old brick building that is part of the South Jersey Port Corp. complex in Camden. The property was formerly home to the New York Shipbuilding Co., once the largest shipbuilder in the world.

The only boatbuilding at the old shipyard these days is done by kids as part of the Urban BoatWorks program run by UrbanPromise, a faith-based non-denominational organization based in Camden.

Fifty middle and high school students from four Camden schools participate annually in the program, which has made 22 boats in four years.

Urban BoatWorks is tucked into a series of rooms in a sturdy old brick building, where you park in front of a sign that reads "Absolutely No Parking.''

Inside are boats in varying degrees of construction: the 16-foot Merrimac, an 18-foot kayak, a 16-foot cedar strip canoe, 
and a kayak called the Sea Duck.

"I like building a boat since I never did it before,'' says Aniyah White, another 7th grader.

The program started in 2009 with just five teenagers and several volunteers, who built three skiffs, named Faith, Promise and Grace. The boats were built in the basement of the former Church of our Savior, now being turned into the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum. Urban BoatWorks expects to move back into the museum in April.

The museum's home has a nice ring of history to it. It was built of ballast stones brought from Greenland by Matthew Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole. A statue of the African-American explorer with his faithful Inuit dog King stands in front of the church. 
The museum will include exhibits on regional maritime history and the boatworks.

The first three boats built by Urban BoatWorks were launched from the nearby Cooper River Yacht Club in 2009. 

''None of the kids had rowed before,'' explained Jim Cummings, director of experiential learning for UrbanPromise. "After an hour or so, I couldn't get them off the water.''

Every boat made at Urban BoatWorks is taken out on the water by the student builders. The boats are also used on outdoor trips run by UrbanPromise.

Students apply to Urban BoatWorks; Rivera's brother, Brandon, preceded his sister in the program.

"I saw one of the boats they made; that inspired me,'' she said.

Asked what they liked least about the work, her boat building buddies were in quick agreement.

"I hate sanding. It's boring and it makes me itch,'' said 7th grader Simone Harris.

What does she likes most? ''The bus ride (to the boatworks). Doing the epoxy. Painting.''

"The peanut butter,'' Rivera added.

Volunteers include VanderKuip; Dave Schill, a private contractor; Bob Lehman, an attorney; and Chip Coward, an engineer.

The volunteers are into the boatbuilding as much as the kids, leading Cummings to joke, 
"I run a ministry in Camden for 50 and 60-year-old men.''

Cummings, who started the program, ran a carpet cleaning franchise for 20 years. When he heard Bruce Main, UrbanPromise's founding director, talk, Cummings felt "inspired,'' and eventually started UrbanTrekkers, a program where a total of 100 schoolchildren go on 14 outdoor and cultural "expeditions'' a year.

"A big part of what I did in UrbanTrekkers is take the kids out on the water,'' Cummings said. "I began thinking, why don't we build our own boats?''

Cummings takes 10 of the boats on the UrbanTrekkers' annual trip to Assateague Island. In summer, there are weekly boat trips on local rivers, through the Pine Barrens, and on Barnegat Bay.

UrbanPromise started in 1988 with a summer camp held in an old Baptist church in Camden. The initial budget was $12,000, and the staff was nearly all-volunteer. The current budget is $3.6 million, and there are 55 full-time employees, with UrbanPromise the largest private employer of teens in Camden.

Urban BoatWorks is not UrbanPromise's only program, but it is certainly the most hands-on one.

Asked what he likes most about boatbuilding, 6th grader Langston Cox replied, "I get to use power tools.''

"We've got to get that bump down so we don't have any air bubbles in our boat,'' VanderKuip told the students.

Students spend two hours a week for 30 weeks in the program. The regularly scheduled snack time seems to be a popular activity here. There is avid munching of Doritos and Cheetos, and, with this group, plenty of girl talk. Aniyah White talks about a "ballet'' class and her teacher.

"It wasn't ballet. She made me leap across the room. It was, "Lady, I'm not stretchable.' ''
After the snack break, it's time to remove loose sand in the canoe with denatured alcohol-soaked cloths.

In between the sanding and peanut butter spreading there is plenty of good-natured back and forth between students and volunteers.

''Mr. Dave,'' White tells Schill, "stop whining.''

The young boatbuilders call the volunteers called "Mr. Chip,'' "Mr. Dave,'' "Mr. Bob,'' and so on, and by 5 p.m. it's time to say goodbye to Mr. Chip and the others.

"We're trying to teach them all facets of life,'' Schill said. "This is not just about building a boat. It's about showing up. Having pride in your work, not just banging it out.

"This is the worst city in the country,'' he added. "But these kids, they raise their hands and say, I want to be a part of this.''

By Peter Genovese, The Star Ledger



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